Why we continue to love the ultimate sci-fi action western Robocop (1987)
The universal appeal of the original Robocop is astounding. It has enough heart-pounding action and snappy dialogue to hook mainstream moviegoers, and enough philosophical density to secure it a place in the Criterion Collection.
While no movie is perfect, Robocop is as close as it gets. Everything works. It’s as much of a penetrating dystopian satire as A Clockwork Orange, as thrilling an action movie as Aliens.
The story is tight, without a wasted moment or superfluous line of dialogue. Paul Verhoeven’s direction is inspired, ratcheting up the violence with a great flair for dark comedy while never neglecting Robocop’s quest to regain his humanity.
What is a Robocop?
Robocop takes place in a future Detroit where psychopathic criminals and corrupt corporations rule the streets. Joining law enforcement risks one’s coming home in a body-bag, but that doesn’t stop idealistic Alex Murphy (Peter Weller) from doing his duty. Unfortunately, during what should be a routine drug bust with partner Annie Lewis (Nancy Allen), Murphy is shot to pieces by drug dealer Clarence Bodicker (Kurtwood Smith) and his cronies.
What Makes a Robocop Great?
Enter Omni Consumer Products, the corporation that essentially runs the Detroit police department. Senior Vice President Dick Jones (Ronny Cox) proposes ED-209, an enforcement droid, aid the officers in cutting down crime. After a demonstration shows ED has trouble discerning between criminals and innocents with gruesome results, ambitious executive Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer) steps in to promote the Robocop program, which only needs a volunteer to get going.
Conveniently, Murphy is put into critical condition just as Morton gets the green-light. Organs and head salvaged, Murphy is reborn as Robocop, the ultimate crime-fighting machine, unencumbered by human frailty. At least, that’s the ideal.
Despite his programming, old memories resurface. Encouraged by Lewis, Robocop starts regaining some of his former personality. His quest to stop crime becomes very personal when he decides to avenge his own murder—a decision which puts him at odds with both the criminal underworld and OCP itself.
Robocop: a Hybrid Sci-Fi Action Western
Robocop is a genre hybrid if ever there was one: a satirical sci-fi action western. The satire of 1980s American culture, with its excess and Cold War anxieties, are mocked in commercials and news clips that sporadically break up the action. These inserts are not only hilarious, but they strongly establish the crass materialism and casual disregard for human life which permeate Robocop’s Detroit.
The western part is rarely discussed, but many of the same tropes are at play. Robocop’s Detroit is an urban Wild West, where innocents are oppressed by corruption in high and low places. Robocop is the law-abiding gun-slinger, Lewis his faithful partner. The final showdown between the resurrected Murphy and his killers evokes western classics like High Noon, where both a community’s welfare and a man’s soul are at stake.
Of course, as an action film, Robocop does not disappoint. The film is (in)famous for its grotesque, over-the-top violence, a perfect match for the excessive setting. Explosions dominate many of the action scenes, where buildings and cars erupt into flames. One wonders how much of the budget covered blood squibs and breakaway glass. Every other moment, it feels like someone is being thrown out a window or filled with lead—often both at once!
How Ultimate is Robocop?
Much of the time, the violence is used to comedic effect, such as the malfunction of ED-209, where an unlucky corporate lackey dies in a flurry of bullets, jerking around like a possessed marionette beneath torrents of blood. Other times, the violence is horrific, such as when Murphy is murdered. Though just as violent as the ED-209 scene, Murphy’s death is shot with all the visceral distress of a horror movie sequence.
Weller’s performance is masterful, the soul of the film. As Murphy, he is a warm family man and an ordinary guy. His transformation into Robocop not only makes his voice robotic and his movements stiff, but it mutes this warmth. When busting criminals, Robocop is collected, cool, and intimidating. However, genial interactions with others confound him, and resurfacing memories of his family awaken foreign emotions he struggles to comprehend.
The most telling example of this occurs early on when Robocop rescues a woman from two rapists. Tearful and relieved, the woman embraces her rescuer, only for Robocop to stiffen then awkwardly inform her he’s set up an appointment with the Rape Crisis Center.
Little moments like that, funny as they are, show what Murphy has lost. As the film progresses, his emotional vulnerability plays off against his physical strength well, making Murphy/Robocop one of the most complicated 80s action heroes.
Celebrating Robocop’s Action Heroes
Fellow cast members lend Weller fantastic support. Nancy Allen is likable and tough as Officer Lewis. Robert DuQoi is entertaining as the perpetually exasperated Sergeant Warren Reed, up to his neck with bureaucratic red tape and dissatisfied employees. As Bob Morton, Miguel Ferrer sells the yuppie executive’s lack of wisdom, love of cocaine, and abundant cockiness.
The villains are so vividly portrayed that they almost steal the spotlight from everyone else. Clarence Bodicker has got to be one of the best movie villains ever and it all comes down to Kurtwood Smith. This is a guy who revels in his own corruption with such glee that it’s hard to entirely despise him, despite his unrepentant sadism. He gets many of the movie’s most memorable lines, “Can you fly, Bobby?” and “Bitches leave” being particular fan favorites.
As Dick Jones, Ronny Cox is slimy, oozing contemptible power-lust. His abuse of his authority makes him easier to dislike than Bodicker in key ways, though he is no less enjoyable to watch. The two play off one another well in their scenes together, two sides of the same criminal coin.
Robocop is a true action classic, no matter how one looks at it. Action buffs will love the imaginative chases and fights. Sci-fi fans will dig the cyberpunk dystopian details. The art house crowd will enjoy the callbacks to classic genres and the themes about society and humankind. Truly, a film with something for everyone except the squeamish.
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